Strabismus and sexuality

At the Winchester Centre for Gender Studies spring symposium, Professor William Gibson’s highly stimulating keynote on ‘Sex and the church in the 18th century’ (we look forward to the forthcoming book of the same title) threw up the fascinating face history nugget that having a squint (in men, it seems) – strabismus – was a sign of their heightened (and rather dubious) sex drive. This got us thinking about how extensive this association might be. Shearer West has explored one famous 18th-century case where the ‘deformed’ face of John Wilkes, MP came under sustained attack in political pamphlets and Hogarth’s portrait of him, but further investigation reveals considerable attention to eye alignment in earlier, medical contexts. Ambroise Paré features a mask to correct a squint in his 16th century work, but has an eastern precursor in Paul of Aegina’s 7th-century Pragmateia, which was also preserved in later Arabic texts. By the 19th century we meet surgical intervention, looking to normalise both sight and appearance, as in Joseph Pancoast’s 1846 surgical manual (illustrated below). But did the negative moral/political association continue from the 18th century? And did it exist before then? Another question to add to the lengthening list for the Effaced group’s attention!

Pancoast's Treatise, plate XLIX L0078170. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Pancoast’s Treatise, plate XLIX
L0078170.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

References: Joseph Pancoast, A treatise on operative surgery comprising a description of the various processes of the art, including all the new operations; exhibiting the state of surgical science in its present advanced condition; with eighty plates, containing four hundred and eighty-six separate illustrations. Second edition, revised and enlarged (Phildelphia, 1846)

Peter Pormann, The Oriental Tradition of Paul of Aegina’s Pragmateia (Leiden, 2004)

Nicholas Wade, A Natural History of Vision (Boston, 1999)

Shearer West, ‘Wilkes’ squint: synechdochic physiognomy and political identity in eighteenth-century print culture’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 33 (1999), 65-84.

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